America’s Dark Ages…in high resolution color.
Why has our mainstream culture become so trivial? We appear to have a vital, energetic society, but most of that energy seems to be invested in just buying and owning things. If only we could celebrate life with the sheer power of a Coke commercial.
Disneyland is not a real-life adventure; it is a simulated amusement for an administered population...and for kids. Walt Disney’s plaque on Main Street touts, “Disneyland is dedicated to …the hard facts that have created America.” Maybe it’s time to look at the hard facts that are destroying her.
Have we become the Entertainment States of America? When our national classic is the latest installment of Star Wars, maybe we have. We seem to be comforted by technology in the desperate hope that special effects with reveal life’s mysteries, and we try never to be uncomfortable, it means we are sick and need treatment.
Our communities no longer have a "common wealth"...a word from our colonial past. Now, we insist on privacy and isolation, but quietly long for attachment. The modern landscape has changed intellectually. Mind chatter and an accelerated lifestyle offer no time to really think, even if we wanted to. We confuse rerunning old memories with critical thought. We seem to have this pathological fear of looking below the surface. Our experiences remain superficial and meaningless, thus we distance ourselves from the events of our own lives. We then have to be satisfied with empty successes and simulated experiences. Adventureland is not adventure. Mind numbing labor is not work.
In the Dark Ages of America, our society will be defined by illiteracy, celebrity and spectacle. Harmless trends will herald the future as we enthrone mediocrity. Fast food restaurants now allow us to order by pictures, as even cashiers’ punch in pictures on the register keys. Memberships will no longer be with book clubs, but with supermarkets, then bombard us with flat screen adds in the checkout line. We will experience a poverty of the imagination unknown since the Dark Ages and we will probably celebrate it.
The culture wars will be formed along these lines. The literate, curious imagination will exist, but at the margins of our society. We already see a divide in movies. The wide release films sell out while a quiet minority visit limited release theatres. It doesn’t take much analytical thought to run from the monster.
Even the Academy Awards was becoming too high brow. Rather than exclude mass culture, the number of best picture Oscars was doubled from five to ten. Ignorance has always demanded an audience, but a consumer culture gives it the whole stage. The chasm will only deepen until red, state blue state differences seem superfluous. A Donald Trump will be very much at home is this world.
Corporate interest should be our interests and yet they have become their own. We saw it in the corporate looting of our economy and we see it in our consumer cultures slow constant seduction. But we can be citizens with a common wealth first and consumers second. The pleasures of entertainment, celebrity and spectacle are good fun, but they need to back off.
I believe that we are designed to live vital meaningful lives. We can claim the ability to live in a world that values good over profit. We can be reckless with our thoughts and promote something other than ourselves. In 1939 novelist E.M. Forster believed in “a future where mankind’s temple is nothing more or less than the Holiness of the Hearts Imagination and our Kingdom, though we never possess it, is the wide open world.”
Art and literature can be the sign post up ahead that says, “I am the real life, head this way.”
Art Van Kraft is a former NPR Southern California News Director, currently a painter in the Los Angeles Art Association and fiction writer.
www.artvankraft.com (for editorial use)